Why people are fat, unhealthy, and sad

By Mike / On / In Knowledge

There’s nutritious food, and there’s delicious food, and thinking those are different types of food makes people fat, unhealthy, and sad. As long as the people who sell food that makes people fat, unhealthy, and sad are better at cooking, distributing, and marketing their products, people will continue to be fat, unhealthy, and sad. You can make all the excuses you want, but they don’t actually do anything. The facts are what they are.

Once you accept the facts, you can decide whether you care about making the world a better place, and whether you have what it takes to actually solve this problem. This is what nature calls a niche, and there’s an industry to be built selling food products that are not only better for you, but better in every way than food that is bad for you.

Solve that problem, and you will be the Apple of food. That’s how Apple took over the mobile market. They said it doesn’t matter why cell phones are lousy, it only matters that we make something that is not merely adequate, but a surprise and delight to use. It doesn’t matter what you think of Apple. That’s their big strategy.

It’s really quite simple. Figure out what the default option is, give people a reason to try your option, and make it easy for them to do so. Throw in something to talk about, and you’ve got the perfect product. The people selling things like politics, religion, and speculative investments are great at this. The people selling science, reason, and being good to your fellow man are using Comic Sans.

If you have what it takes, any market is yours, and make no mistake, that goes for every market, and that includes the marketplace of ideas. The reason things are falling apart and it feels like you’re surrounded by idiots is the same reason you’re surrounded by people who are fat, unhealthy and sad—the bad guys pick better fonts.

It’s not about the choice of typeface. It’s about what the choice of typeface represents. I didn’t even notice the typeface, because there was so much information crammed onto each slide, I thought I was at the world’s most boring business meeting. Which is a real shame, because the product is amazing.

Science deserves to be treated better than this. Science isn’t a bunch of nerds with no aesthetic taste. Science is the source of all our power. Science connects us to our place in the Cosmos. Science brings us closer to God. It’s no wonder the forces of violence, materialism, and greed are so keen to keep us and our children away from it.

Return of the Son

By Mike / On / In Appsterdam

I confess, I am a bit jaded as a public speaker.

I’ve given the talk I’m presenting tomorrow, “Product Engineering,” at least four times. I’ve spoken at the conference series I’m presenting at tomorrow, QCon, as many times as well. I don’t know the exact numbers because I speak a lot. I speak so much I had to start the Appsterdam Speaker Bureau to handle all the overlapping invitations.

I’m nervous for tomorrow like it’s the first time.

The importance and complexity of Appsterdam makes every job I’ve had, every product I’ve built, every team I’ve led, seem like practice stones along the road of destiny. So it is with my speaking career and the symbolism of my returning to Silicon Valley after a grand adventure to tell my former compatriots what I’ve found and what I’ve founded.

This may be the most important speech of my life.

QCon is pulling out all the stops for me. We’ve got the main stage, the mariachi band, and the Mexican food booked. This is going to be a full-fledged Themenote, like the one I delivered to 360iDev, but bigger. Oh my great pantheon of invisible gods do we have something planned.

Those are the facts. How about some superlatives?

Let’s keep this in perspective. I’m not addressing the civil rights movement, and I’m not launching the iPhone, but in the very large category of informational technical keynotes? Yeah, definitely, it’s going to be the greatest of all time.

What’s after this, retirement? Maybe pyrotechnics?

QCon San Francisco is sold out. There is a waiting list. If you’d like to request press access, please contact QCon.

Where to begin

By Mike / On / In Knowledge

A lot of aspiring App Makers contact me, wondering how to get started turning their idea into an actual product. Should they hire a coder, or learn to code themselves? Or should they start with a designer? Or an investor? My advice, as always, is to start at the end. That is, make a video that shows people using your app.

This accomplishes several things. First and foremost, it establishes the story of your product, which is what people will tell each other about your product. It also gives you focus. People always tell you to do one thing and do it well. This establishes that one thing right up front.

When you’re making the video what you’re doing is you’re putting yourself in your customer’s shoes. You’re stopping to think, in a formal way, about what it’s like for people to use your product. As you go through those motions, you realize what the product needs to be, the genesis of design.

Making a video also establishes a vision of the product. I’m a big fan of generating marketing materials early in the product development process, because it helps everyone know just what exactly you’re intending to build. Great products come from great teams, but only if everyone agrees on what they’re building.

By the time your video is finished, you’ll know what you’re building, what it looks like, and how it works. You’ve also got the video itself, which you’ll show to potential recruits, investors, and customers. In addition to showing the world why they would use your product, the video shows them how they would use your product. This is Apple’s favorite trick: pre-training people with commercials, making the products seem intuitive.

App videos have become increasingly popular if only because they fill the gap left by app stores cutting out trial periods. If you can’t try it, at least you can see someone else trying it. For a lot of people, that’s the push they need to buy. That also means that app videos are as competitive as apps themselves.

The standard presentation rules apply. You want to entertain, inspire, and educate, in that order. A minute is a gigabyte of attention span, so try to keep the video short. Be creative, but don’t go overboard. Getting the audio quality right is more important than all the stunts in the world.


By Mike / On / In Technology

In my last post I suggested that one opportunity presented by the American Patent War would be for Europe to develop a new app platform that would be out of reach of Silicon Valley’s technology tax.

That got me thinking about what my dream platform would look like. I imagine something that belongs to the community, built and controlled by App Makers themselves. Something that combines the best of existing platforms, but learns from their mistakes, and improves upon them.

Obviously we want the platform to be open, but we also see value in Apple’s strict controls on quality. I think the solution to this is to allow developers to sell directly to users, while also creating an App Shop with strict quality controls to make it easy for users to find the best apps.

Indeed, I think the most powerful tool a platform provider has is its seal of approval. Right now that comes in the form of being featured on the App Store, App Marketplace, or what have you. But that could also just be a seal.

On the hardware side we pretty much just want the iPad. Apple could provide that hardware. The EU could require them to allow third-party operating systems on their hardware. Monkies could fly out of my butt.

As much as I hate to say something like this, Apple doesn’t actually make iPads, as Samsung has demonstrated. We either commission a really nice piece of hardware, or we just make the thing hardware agnostic, using strict specifications to stay out of fractured hell.

I’m sure a lot of people will fixate on the hardware. I’m not trying to start a flame war here, but I don’t think hardware is the biggest issue. Look at the success of the Game Boy over the superior Game Gear, Lynx, and others. The platform that wins is the platform that has the apps.

How do we program the thing? Ideally we don’t choose one language, but make it easy to expand to any language, perhaps by compiling to a common meta-language, such as C. That way the nerds don’t have to fight over their favorites.

That would also make the Europad the ideal platform for exploring new programming paradigms, like graphical programming for kids—what Smalltalk and Cocoa could have been.

Tell me about your dream platform.

New directions in app marketing

By Mike / On / In Knowledge

This afternoon we saw the second Weekly Wednesday Lunchtime Lecture, hosted by SourceTag. The speaker, Raul Portales, talked about his experiences in marketing his games on the Android Marketplace. Although I’m an iOS guy, the challenges we face on the App Store are even greater on the other side.

Raul presented several graphs showing his total installed base over time as irrefutable evidence to back his assertions, and I took away several lessons that I think are relevant to all platforms, and to product engineering and marketing in general.

When we talk about the business model of your app, we’re talking about whether you’re selling it outright, or giving it away for free and trying to monetize with advertising.

Also common are the hybrid “freemium” models. You can have two versions: a lite version and a paid version. Or you can use the old shareware model, letting people download and try the app for free, then purchase it in-app to remove adds, unlock features, and remove limitations.

Raul proposed a new model, which can be used alone, or in conjunction to other models, which I call the “freebie” model. You have the main, full-featured app available to purchase. You then have a number of simplified spin-off apps you give away for free, which contain ads for the main app.

There are several advantages to this model, and Raul’s numbers prove that it works. His freebie app was featured by Google, which brought in some 80,000 new users. Although the absolute numbers are an order of magnitude lower, the growth curve for the paid app was an exact match to that of the freebie app.

It was no accident the freebie got featured. Raul shrewdly made a stripped down seasonal variant, in this case for the Easter holidays. Not only are customers looking for seasonal things to try, stores are looking for seasonal things to feature.

This is genius. Seasonal apps are a niche market. The number of entries is smaller, meaning the chances of getting picked are much higher. Getting featured is the fastest way to pick up new users, and making the app free makes downloading it a no-brainer.

Not only do a number of users follow the cross promotion to the main app, the quality of the users is particularly high. Every app has a certain “bozo penalty” of users who give it undeservedly low ratings for asinine reasons. The less your app costs, the more bozos end up trying it, with free apps suffering the worst by far.

The freebie model uses the free app to absorb the bozo penalty, and only sends over the users who actually liked the app. This means that not only are your sales higher, your reviews are higher than they would have been with similar growth from other sources, like being featured directly.

I’ve always preferred the shareware model, but this bozo shield effect is a compelling counterargument in favor of the lite model. If my app skinned easily, I think I would eschew them both and just use a pure freebie model.

Raul’s other observations included the superior performance of niche apps over apps for a general audience. Even though the market is smaller, penetration rates are much higher, meaning you capture a larger percentage of possible users. Ratings are also higher.

Why is that? There are a number of possible explanations, but the one I prefer is based on the fact that real users differ from the models of them we use in creating our products. Assuming you know what you’re doing, the closer the actual user is to the model, the more they will like the app.

By extension, the farther the user is from the model, the more they will dislike the app. Users tend to like products more as they get used to them, because mastering the product moves them closer to the model user.

When you make an app for a general audience, you are casting a wide net, and are going to get a lot more people who are so far from the model as to fall into this bozo category. Because they are focused, niche products tend to attract people already closer to the model, leading to better overall satisfaction.

Another problem Raul mentioned is that people who dislike an app are more motivated to rate it than people who actually like it. This causes all reviews to trend downward. This effect is exaggerated by the fact people overuse the lowest rating. Anyone who ever got an F knows what one low score can do to an average.

Andy Ihnatko once made this point about people leaving one-star reviews of his book on Amazon for relatively minor complaints. I am paraphrasing here, but the idea is that if the book contained nothing but insults for the reader, racist jokes, and fond remembrances of Hitler, you would also give it one star.

I think the solution to both these problems is for the store or OS to prompt users after one month, or upon deleting the app, to simply give the app a thumbs up or thumbs down.

This is how we do our speaker ratings after each Weekly Wednesday Lunchtime Lecture. No star ratings. No surveys. We simply ask people to answer a yes-or-no question: would you like to see this speaker again? We get around 75% voter participation, which is pretty damned good.

Any speaker who receives at least an 80% approval rating will be put on the Appsterdam speaker list, which will be online so journalists looking for interviewees, conferences looking for presenters, and schools looking for lecturers know who to talk to.